Helping students make the most of conversation practice: A learner-training lesson

Andrew Hayes, Kanagawa University, Yokohama


Quick Guide

  • Key words: Conversation, noticing, recasting
  • Learner English level: All
  • Learner maturity level: 1st-year university
  • Preparation time: None
  • Activity time: 20-30 minutes
  • Materials: None


How can we get students to view conversation activities as opportunities to make real improvement rather than casual, low-effort chat sessions? One way is to take a few minutes to train them on exactly what should be going on in their heads as they participate. This short lesson fits well into a meta-talk on language learning and making mistakes, preferably near the beginning of the term.


Step 1: Tell the students about an imaginary conversation you overheard on the train between two 1st-year university students talking about their English conversation class. One student was excited because the teacher focused on practicing real communication instead of translation and rote memorization. The other student, however, felt that all the game playing and activities did not amount to any real learning.

Step 2: Make the point that although conversation practice may sometimes look like fun and games, it is a serious opportunity for students to improve their skills if they use their minds actively.

Step 3: Elicit a list of academic subjects students are studying and write them on the board in two columns, one for language classes and another for all other subjects.

Step 4: Explain that while in the non-language subjects the teacher may simply transmit information to the students so they become experts on the subject, this is not the case in language learning. The teacher cannot give students English ability.

Step 5: Ask the students if they have ever held a conversation in Japanese with a nonnative Japanese speaker. What kinds of things did they do to communicate successfully?

Step 6: Introduce recasting, a phenomenon where a native speakers repeats an utterance back to a nonnative speaker using correct, natural language.

Step 7: Demonstrate recasting by making a novel utterance in the students’ native language. Be sure to include some mistakes. For example, if you are teaching in Japan, you could say, “Boku no shitsu-wa nanban desu-ka (Which room number is my class in?).” Ask the students if they can understand what you wanted to say and invite a volunteer to recast it in their own words, such as: “Watashi no jugyou-ha nangou shitsu desuka.” Repeat the new utterance correctly and tell the students what you noticed about the correction (the casual boku becomes watashi, ban becomes gou). Thank the volunteer for helping you improve your Japanese.

Step 8: Choose a capable student and ask them, for example, what they plan to do after class today. The student might say something like, “I go to shopping. After, home…go.” Recast naturally as “Oh, you’ll go shopping then go home.” Ask the student to say their sentence again. It should be somewhat more correct, such as, “I go to shopping, then go home.” Keep recasting naturally and have the student repeat until there are no remaining inaccuracies.

Step 9: Write all the versions of the student’s sentence on the board, from the original to the corrected one. Note the changes made in each version. Explain that when we say something and someone recasts it, we should compare what we hear with what we said. If we find a difference, this can be called “noticing the gap.” Emphasize that noticing and taking advantage of these gaps is an important part of improving language skills.

Step 10: Repeat this process with other students as necessary.

Step 11: Finally, point out that students can use this technique not only with a teacher but also when speaking English with classmates. They each have different abilities and can learn from each other.